Monday, October 24, 2011

Capsule Review – Phantom of the Opera

October 24, 2011

Phantom of the Opera – US, 1943

Arthur Lubin’s Phantom of the Opera is not a horror film; instead, it is a film in love with the sounds associated with opera – with its angelic high notes and its crowd-pleasing baritone voices that convey an aura of masculinity and nobility. It’s as if filmmakers made a conscience effort to include all of the music that they could not put in the 1925 silent version and then were so impressed with the early results that they decided to double the effort. If their intention was indeed to create an awe-inspiring musical, they have succeeded for the most part. In between the film’s extremely long musical numbers are occasional attempts at humor involving a young woman’s two potential suitors, and for each bit that works, there are at least two that fall a bit flat. However, the characters have their hearts in the right place, and each of them is the kind of person any mother would be quite happy to call her son-in-law. And then there are the film’s rather rare moments of drama and horror, scenes that are intended to promote the notion that the Phantom is indeed a terrorizing figure. In this too, the film only partially succeeds. As played by Claude Rains, the Phantom is too short to be a truly imposing figure and too covered up to ever be considered frightening. At times, we see the Phantom’s shadow standing in the distance ominously, only for it to suddenly rush off. It’s as if what the Phantom really wanted to avoid was the camera.

To be fair, the Phantom is not really intended to be a frightening character. From the very beginning of the film, audiences are meant to sympathize with him. Age has taken away his musical ability, and anxieties and fear have caused him to make a singular mistake that will have long-lasting consequences. I imagine that most of us have known someone like the Phantom, someone who fell in love, but was too awkward or shy to do anything about it. Rains does an adequate job as the Phantom, but what he needed was a scene in which the Phantom completely snaps and becomes homicidal. Instead, we get a rather clumsy stab at possessiveness that never quite seems believable. If this was his goal all along, he could have pursued it a lot earlier in the film.

Perhaps the character of the Phantom fits more naturally in one of those dark, ominous worlds that could more easily be created in silent movies, for what little suspense the film has is lost every time Christine and her heroic leading man begin singing. In fact, for much of the film, the Phantom is reduced to a secondary character, and his presence is hardly felt when he is off camera. In a better film, his presence would hang over the characters, giving them a persistent feeling of insecurity and fear. Instead we get moments of worry followed by jokes and light-hearted conversation. But enough about that. What seems to really matter here is the music, and if the Phantom is content to just kick his feet back and revel in the sounds of his love singing her heart out, I suppose the audience will be too. Just don’t expect to scream much. (on DVD)

3 stars

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